Why more provinces are ditching school trustees

Elected school boards appear to be on the decline in Canadian education systems. Is it time to abolish them?
By Daniel Kitts - Published on Apr 30, 2021
Bad press coupled with an increasingly centralized education system has people questioning the value of locally elected trustees. (iStock.com/maroke)

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Is the elected school-board trustee becoming an endangered species in Canada?

Last month, Manitoba announced that it would eliminate elected school boards as part of sweeping education reforms. That followed a similar move by Nova Scotia in 2018. In Quebec, English-language school boards have gone to court over a law that abolishes school elections.

In Ontario, the province has no stated plan to scrap elected trustees — but Queen’s Park makes virtually every major education-policy and -funding decision.

The Agenda debated whether Ontario should get rid of the elected school board trustee system.

That wasn’t always the case. Over the past 50 years, school-board trustees across the province have seen their power — and sheer numbers — dwindle.

In 1968, Ontario (and then-education minister Bill Davis) consolidated the province’s 3,700 school boards into 230 larger boards. By the mid-1990s, there were just 124 remaining.

But the cutting wasn’t done. In 1997, Premier Mike Harris’s government passed the Fewer School Boards Act. The total number of boards was reduced to 72, and approximately 1,200 trustee positions were eliminated in the process.

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The new law also decreed that school boards could no longer collect property taxes, which left the purse strings for education entirely in the hands of Queen’s Park. Suddenly it was the province, not trustees, that largely decided how much money schools spent and what they spent it on.

The past several years have not been kind to the reputation of trustees, who have made headlines for allegations of incompetence, infighting, and discrimination. The bad press coupled with an increasingly centralized education system has people questioning the value of locally elected trustees.

Manitoba, for example, is replacing the province’s 37 English-language boards with a new provincial education authority. “We came down to the belief that we had to raise the game beyond the local democratically elected school board,” says Clayton Manness, a former provincial cabinet minister who co-chaired Manitoba’s commission on education reform. “And that's hard. That's particularly hard for a traditionalist like myself. I believe in local autonomy.”

Manness says the commission concluded that elected trustees would slow down the implementation of needed education reforms. Manitoba students rank second-last among the provinces when it comes to reading skills, and last in math.

But Manitoba’s plan to eliminate elected trustees is not a done deal — and it’s been met with opposition from school boards and teachers’ unions. Many parents are also upset: thousands have signed an open letter decrying the proposed reforms.

While the province argues that parents will have increased influence in school affairs through the creation of volunteer-run community school councils, the letter predicts the opposite.

“Under the proposed new system, already busy parents will be required to volunteer much more time to take on the responsibilities of the school boards that you want to eliminate,” it says. “Parents will struggle to have their diverse voices heard when one central politically appointed board is formed.”

Similar concerns have been raised in Nova Scotia after that province dissolved its boards three years ago. A CBC News analysis in December found that, of Nova Scotia’s 333 school websites, only one-quarter had posted recent minutes, agendas, or meeting dates for their school advisory councils. On the majority of school websites, the sections dedicated to advisory councils were either blank or outdated by more than a year.

In other provinces, attempts to run the education system without elected trustees have been relatively short-lived. New Brunswick got rid of elected school boards in 1997, only to restore them four years later in response to public pressure. Prince Edward Island disbanded its English-language school board in 2015 — but is now in the process of bringing it back.

So while the future of elected trustees in a modern school system may be far from clear, the debate is far from over.

With files from Harrison Lowman.

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